Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Backwards World

Margaret Mead where are you when we need you. Help me understand the strange rituals practiced by a tribe I have discovered.

1. The subjects speak to each other using informal names and the hang out together. Then they have meetings monitored by the chief of the tribe. Now they take on a completely different tone. People who were calling each other Phil or Jane before the meeting now use much more formal terms -- referring to their pals as Professor Jones and Professor Smith.

2. They make formal speeches at these meeting using codes that are know by some but not by all. A new visitor to these meeting would be misled if he only relied on the words spoken. For example, "I am concerned" means "I disagree with you."

3. Very often in these meetings a speaking contest breaks out. To the outsider it seems to be a competition to determine who can speak the longest or repeat the same things the highest number of times.

4. Just before the chief calls the meeting to order, there is usually much laughter. The problem is that nothing funny is being said. The silliest statements draw howls. It's like they are so nervous about the combat to come in the meeting that they are trying to hide the tension.

5. Sometimes they do the cruelest things to each other. They will lie about someone or disparage them to others. Sometimes they take things from each other. Yet, in public they act like they like each other and make a big show of their mutual affection. This is especially true when it comes ot the chief. They will be very critical of the chief and then fall over themselves to display their great love of the chief.

5. A very odd trait is volunteering when they want something. Several tribe members may want to visit a neighboring village. They do not ask to go but "volunteer" to go. They place great value on getting things without appearing to have asked. Instead, they want it to appear that either someone asked them or that they are actually doing a favor for the tribe. It's like what they do and say is designed to appear to be the opposite.

6. The theme of opposites also comes up in their work. They conduct what the refer to as "research." Unlike other cultures that conduct research they do not look for answers to questions. For example, in regular research one might as "Do green apples make you sick?" and then attempt to find the answer. In his tribe they do the opposite -- they start with the answer and then their research is devoted to explaining why their preconceived answer is the correct one whether it is or not.

7. One other odd trait is how they assess the accomplishments of each other. The value each other not so much by how hard they work or what they produce but sometimes on the basis of how much they are alike. In fact, in finding new tribe members they often search very hard for those who are the most like.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

the problem with a true merit system is that no one knows where the chips will fall (ie, someone may work harder or be smarter than you) and people prefer certainty. Colluding to get a predictable outcome gives people that certainty.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, even academics will resort to petty politics in order to improve the probability that they will get what they want.

By colluding with colleagues and "playing the game", they are able to get a positive outcome (ie, improved assignments, higher pay, etc) without actually deserving it.